Last Saturday, September 29, was the annual festival of St. Michael and All Angels, sometimes shortened to Michaelmas. This minor holiday on the traditional Christian calendar provides an opportunity for Christians to think about the things we know about angels and to thank God for the place he has given angels in creation and in the life of the Church.
Here are some things we know about angels (along with some things we can reasonably guess):
- Angels were created by God. Although the Bible does not tell us when angels were created, it is reasonable to guess that they were created at some point in the six days described in Genesis 1. Many Christians opt for the fourth day of creation—the day when God created the sun, moon, and stars—since stars are often associated with angels in the Bible.
- Angels have always been angels and will always be angels. People do not become angels when they die. People who die remain human, even though their bodies and their souls are separated between their death and their resurrection.
- Angels are not material beings. They do not contain any atoms or molecules. They take up no space in the three dimensions of creation, nor do they reflect light. When it is useful for an angel to be seen and heard, that angel glows with light instead of reflecting light. They Bible does not explain how immaterial angels make themselves heard by human ears.
- The English word “angel” comes from a Greek word which means “messenger.” Likewise, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament translated as angel means “messenger.” Sometimes the same word is used to describe human messengers. (This may be the case in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.) The reason this word is used to describe the beings we call angels is that (most of the time) when humans interact with angels, the task of the angel is to deliver a message to the human.
- Other names for angels found in the Bible include cherubim (single = cherub) and seraphim (single = seraph). These Hebrew words depict the glowing or burning appearance of the angels. Early medieval Christian writers deduced nine levels of hierarchy among the angels, including thrones, principalities, and powers. Michael is named as an archangel, or head of the angels (but see below). Gabriel is the only other angel named in the sixty-six books of the Bible. (Raphael is an angel named in the Apocrypha.)
- Moses described Jesus as an angel—namely, the Angel of the Lord. This reflects knowledge of the Holy Trinity in the writings of Moses, as he speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord frequently speaks of God in the third person (“he” rather than “I”) but also says things that only God can say. Some Christians believe that Michael the archangel (or head of the angels) is also Jesus, since he has authority over all the angels of heaven.
- Early in time, some angels rebelled against God and tried to grasp his authority over creation. The leader of the rebellious angels is called the devil. He is also named Satan (which means the accuser or the prosecutor). Some Christians deduce that Satan drew one third of the created angels into his rebellion. (Revelation describes a dragon who swept one third of the stars out of the sky with his tail.) If so, that means that the faithful angels outnumber the rebellious angels two-to-one, not to mention that they serve on the side of the Almighty God, whom Satan opposes.
- The Bible says only that Satan rebelled against God because of Satan’s pride. It appears that Satan understands power and authority, but he cannot grasp love and mercy. Therefore, Satan believes he is stronger than the loving and merciful God. It is fitting, then, that the Lord defeated Satan through a sacrifice given because of God’s love.
- Whenever humans break a commandment of God, whether through an act that is against what God has said or through neglect to do what God requires, that person declares independence from God and joins in the devil’s rebellion. Pure and untempered justice would require that sinners be forced to accept the consequences of that choice and to share the devil’s punishment for rebellion. Because his nature is to love, God is unfair to human sinners, providing a way to be rescued from their sin and from Satan’s power. That rescue is accomplished by the perfect righteousness of Jesus, the Son of God who became human, and by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection of Jesus proves his victory over the devil, death, and all evil. All who trust in Jesus and in his life, death, and resurrection, share also in his victory.
- Jesus lived, died, and rose again as a human being to redeem human beings. Jesus has done nothing to redeem Satan and the rebellious angels. The Bible does not explain why God made that distinction between angels and human beings, choosing to rescue the latter but not the former from rebellion and its consequences.
- It appears that after Satan’s rebellion, God has hardened all the angels into their state of obedience or disobedience. The obedient angels are not in danger of a future fall into sin, nor are the rebellious angels given an opportunity to renounce their rebellion and return to the Lord.
- The power of the devil is in his lies. He persuades people to sin by lying to them, and he tries to block their path to redemption by lying, saying that they cannot be forgiven and that God does not love them anymore. The power of God’s Word overturns the devil’s lies. To those who know and believe God’s Word, the devil is like a lion caged at the zoo, separated from those he wants to harm. Those who discard God’s Word are like visitors to the zoo who climb into the exhibit and try to play with the lions.
- Satan’s fall from heaven does not happen at a single time in human history. Rather, Satan falls from heaven whenever and wherever God’s Word is proclaimed and believed. Satan has been falling ever since God spoke the first Gospel promise to the first sinners. Satan fell from heaven when the apostles of Jesus proclaimed his Word in Galilee (Luke 10:18). Satan falls as pastors, missionaries, and any Christians share God’s Gospel promise with sinners.
- God assigns angels to watch over his people in this sinful world. Although at times those angels can intervene to protect or save a human life, their primary desire is to preserve faith in the heart of the believer. At death, angels carry the soul of the believer to Paradise to await the resurrection. According to God’s will, guardian angels permit suffering and even death to happen to a Christian. We cannot know how many times and how many ways each of us has been protected by an angel.
- Angels, as our guardians, take their orders from God. We cannot tell angels what to do. In the new creation, when all our sin has been removed, we will have authority over angels. We cannot exercise authority over angels today.
- Angels do not want us to pray to them or to be distracted by them from God. Angels want our faith and trust to be in Christ Jesus and not in angels. Even when studying what the Bible says about angels, Christians do well to remember Christ and his cross and to keep them central in their thinking.
- On the Day of the Lord angels will be active in gathering Christ’s people from all parts of the Earth to join Jesus in his glorious appearing. They will accompany Christ Jesus as he brings the souls of the saints from Paradise and raises their bodies for life in the new creation. Satan and all rebellious angels will be cast out of the new creation. Humans who have refused to trust Christ and believe his promises will share the devil’s punishment. This is just, because they did not want to be with Christ during their lifetimes, and they would be miserable in the new creation where Christ will always be present for everyone living there. But the believers—body and soul united, never again to be separated—will live forever with Christ and with all the faithful angels in a perfect new creation, never to be stained by rebellion, sin, or death.